Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Film Diary

As I discussed here, I'm a bit burnt out on Letterboxd, so I'm posting some reviews here instead.

Brain Damage (1988). Dir. Frank Henenlotter.

I first saw this film back in 2008 or so, when I had stumbled across the genius of Basket Case. I had always fancied myself a horror film fan but I wasn't really. I was just somebody who sneered at mainstream horror; case in point, my fav of all time was and still is The Exorcist followed closely by Evil Dead II. Since then, I've really expanded my tastes for film in general and have been consuming more and more off-the-beaten-path horror. Thus, I'm in a great place to reevaluate this unique work. As I delve deeper in film and film theory, my appreciate of aesthetics and form have deepened; thus I paid special attention to how Brain Damage looks, how it moves, how it drapes everything in these lights. A weird compliment to give this: it's the Michael Mann of horror films in its aesthetics. I was reminded a lot of Dante Spinotti's cinematography on Manhunter. Henenlotter's film is lurid in its electric blues, its mournful reds, almost as if the real world constructed by the film is actually a hybrid of the hallucinatory paradise provided by the monster, if monster is even the word to apply to the character. Arrow Video's restoration of the film on Blu ray is sublime; I'm not accustomed to Henenlotter films looking so pristine or vibrant. In fact, I wonder if Henenlotter would even approve of this upgrade, considering he calls himself an exploitation director, aesthetic warts and all. Still, I quite loved this.

Royal Warriors (1986). Dir. David Chung

After seeing Corey Yuen Kwai's Yes Madam, I felt the hunger for more of the "girls with guns" mini-trend in Hong Kong cinema in the 80's. Also starring Michelle Yeoh, Royal Warriors opens with an incredibly violent and impressive freeing of hostages on an airplane, with three villains being solidly beaten to death by the two main characters. After breaking a window on the plane, Yeoh manages to fix the hyperbolic decompression of the plane by sticking a villain's head through the aperture. The scene is punctuated by a gleeful and morbid exterior shot of the airplane, with the villain's frozen head in centre frame. The rest of the film is classic 1980s Hong Kong action: ribald and tonally confusing humour, plenty of location shots of a Hong Kong that no longer exists, and copious amounts of asskicking. The climax opts for explosions but more impressive to me was the one-on-one showdown between the final villain and Yeoh. The choreography was exhilarating, the exact type of action ballet I love. A moment in the fight wowed me: a grilled metal cage is used as a weapon by the villain but when shoved at Yeoh, she effortlessly tumbles over it, pushing it back against the villain. Words can't do this moment of graceful perfection any justice. While Royal Warriors isn't as accomplished or as exuberant as Yes Madam, I still very much enjoyed it, especially how Yeoh's costuming seemed to consist entirely of comfy sweaters.

Vanishing Point (1971). Dir. Richard C. Sarafian

Car chase films should have as little plot as possible, I argue. Too many car chase films pile on the plot when it's not necessary. The chase should be the logical endpoint of the emotional stakes established previously by the characters. A simple maxim, but incredibly difficult for films, especially in our current mode of production which requires as much plot and complicating incident as audiences will tolerate. It's as if films think audiences are bored unless the plot never stops finding complications. Vanishing Point was a wholly pleasant surprise for me. I wasn't expecting the film to be as abstract as it is. I'm always appreciative of films which confound my expectations and especially confound my assumptions of films made in earlier modes of production. In other words, I also wasn't ready for the film to be as modern feeling as it is. The film wisely provides the entirety of the premise in the first ten minutes: Barry Newman's character must deliver a car from Colorado to San Francisco in three days. That's really it for the plot. The rest of the film has him evade cops and listen to the radio. He has short interactions with some other characters and backstory is meted out very slowly—and a bit unnecessarily. If there's a mistake to be made, it's in too much information, but I can't really fault the film on the whole. Vanishing Point strives for some allegorical meaningfulness and it doesn't quite get there, but the ambition is admirable. Other than the excellent car chases and sound design, what made this film so enjoyable for me was Barry Newman's obfuscating acting; he and the screenplay withhold motivation from the audience, and I vigorously applaud the decision.

Bullitt (1968). Dir. Peter Yates

My Letterboxd capsule review unfortunately sums this up: the small scene when McQueen effortlessly parallel parks in as few moves as possible was more impressive than anything else in the film. Bullitt isn't much of anything other than a historical document, an insight into what audiences liked back in 1968. McQueen's performance shimmers with coolness but he lacks characterization and motivation. He goes through with everything in the film because that's just what cops were depicted as doing in the late 60's. His Bullitt stands uncomfortably over the line between the rigid dogmatism of Dragnet et al. and the wild antihero shenanigans of Dirty Harry et al. He does things mostly by the book (as we're told by other characters) and sometimes not by the book (falsifying hospital records and disobeying direct orders... to get the job done). Other than the famous car chase, Bullitt doesn't have much to offer the modern viewer, especially the absurdly inert climax, a stupefying chase through an airport runway which offers zero thrills thanks to its ink black cinematography and a loose grasp of geographical coherence.

Dragons Forever (1988). Dir. Sammo Hung and Corey Yuen Kwai.

I've not seen as much Sammo Hung films as I should. From what I've seen, Hung is working overtime just to entertain the audience: fluid graceful choreo, romance plots, slapstick, acrobatics, and fights galore. There were definitely places in this film where my patience was a bit tested, but for every moment like that, there would be something Mark Cousins-y, in the punctum sense. Consider the scene in which Sammo's character serenades his fiance on the docks and does a little dance. It conveys much about the two characters: his romanticism and sincerity, her embarrassment but gentle acquiescence to his seduction. It also doesn't quite fit with the rest of the film, but in a positive sense. The other two leads, the famous Jackie Chan and the underappreciated Yuen Biao, don't quite accomplish as much characterization, especially Biao. Though the aforementioned Biao is one of the most absurdly graceful acrobats I've ever seen in a martial arts film. He's a Grace Kelly, a Fred Astaire, floating on air while punching people. Putting his birdlike flying against Sammo's physical solidness is a stroke of genius. Their two fights in the film are the most fun, the most impressive part of the movie. I could have done without the atonal strokes of misogyny, but watching a Hong Kong film requires a slight modulation of cultural perspective. This isn't to excuse the sexism but we should remember these films were produced under entirely difference conditions of production and cultural circumstances. Just as Western audiences might find the slapstick silliness of these films to be a bit too campy, Eastern audiences might object to the lack of action in similarly themed films.

Prometheus (2012). Dir. Ridley Scott.

Worse than I remembered to be frank. I saw this opening weekend in 2012 and had never felt the desire to rewatch. With the sequel to the prequel arriving in theatres this week, my partner suggested we give it a go. They had never seen it. I'm guessing they now regret watching it. I've read multiple positive reviews of this turgid slog but never have I been convinced. I'm glad, obviously, there are fans of the film, but this film boasts one of the worst screenplays I've ever had the displeasure of sitting through. Characters lack any motivation or human emotion, nor do they even behave like human beings. Everybody makes the most boneheaded decisions to the point of exasperation. It's certainly pretty in places but one would expect a director with such a career able to, at least with the barest minimum of effort, produce aesthetically pleasing imagery. A waste of a top shelf cast and a waste of the Alien brand itself. The film fundamentally misunderstands the allure of the Space Jockeys and seeks to undo all that made them work with two(!) films explaining away their mystery. Ugh.

Almost Human (1974). Dir. Umberto Lenzi.

Somebody on Letterboxd complained Tomas Milian always overacts to the nth degree and it's especially true of this film, but I kind of like Milian's brand of mugging. His face never stops contorting itself, never stops moving. He delivers every line as if he's on stage in a comedy show, even when playing the villain (ie Four of the Apocalypse). Almost Human, like the aforementioned Vanishing Point, feels incredibly modern in its screenplay; characters have these great scenes of dialogue, as if the dialogue was written by Mamet or the person who wrote The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Milian's character is similar to his in Fulci's Four of the Apocalypse: barbaric, misanthropic, vindictive, and cruel. I've been thinking a lot about cruelty in cinema, an extension of my interest in the ethics of film. I've found myself really repulsed by the mindless cruelty and bloodletting found in mainstream Hollywood. Case in point, the so-so Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. From a friend's review:
here he engages in revelling in the slaughtering of lots of people, emphasising their pain by having close ups of their anguished faces while an upbeat 80s song plays which is astoundingly not cool for a moment that is supposed to be badass, comes off as needlessly cruel.
It's cruelty in the guise of coolness and I'm no longer interested in it. The same can be said of Scott's Alien: Covenant: it's relentlessly cruel and misanthropic film reveling in the misery and pain of its characters without any counterpoint. Films like Almost Human and the oeuvre of Ruggero Deodato at least try to do something with the savagery. While Lenzi isn't operating at the same skill level as Deodato in terms of thematic depth, Almost Human suggests a dare on the part of the film: can you root for, can you invest in, can you identify with a protagonist as evil as this one? Audience identification can be defined(from here)by three vectors:
emotional empathy (the ability to feel what the characters feel and become effectively involved in a vicarious way), cognitive empathy (adopting the point of view of or putting oneself in the place of the characters), sharing or internalizing the character’s goal and absorption (having the sensation of becoming the character or a temporal loss of self-awareness and imagining the story as if one were one of the characters).
In this case, none of the three vectors are satisfied by Milian's protagonist: his goals are obfuscated (why this particular get-rich scheme?), his emotions are kept at a remove for much of the film (until the end), and the cruelty of his actions means we can't really live vicariously through his scheme. He takes wild risks, murders his compatriots, and rarely stops to self-reflect on his actions. He resists identification but the audience still can't look away. The film is daring the audience to find redeeming qualities in this "almost human." For that, the cruelty in the film and of the film is motivated. It's not just a woman being torn to pieces by dinosaurs in vivid detail (Jurassic World). This is my sixth Lenzi film and I'm beginning to get a grip on his interests. Like Deodato, he's not simply an Italian hack churning out pieces of exploitation. He's working on a project of audience provocation.

And so ends this film diary.

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